Sinai’s Beduin making their grievances known

Post-Mubarak, nomadic tribes aim to gain more official levels of local autonomy, despite recent gas pipeline explosions.

By OREN KESSLER
July 6, 2011 02:37
3 minute read.
A Beduin man rides a camel on Sinai beach.

sinai beach camel 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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No suspects have yet been apprehended in Monday’s pipeline blast, but suspicions on both sides of the Egyptian-Israeli border have already settled on Sinai’s Beduin. Since Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in February, members of the peninsula’s 400,000-strong community have enjoyed an autonomy unrivaled in decades, one which presents real security concerns for Cairo and Jerusalem.

In practice, Sinai has long been semi-autonomous, with Beduin chieftains and militia – not Cairo – determining the flow of goods, money and people. In recent years the central government has taken to encouraging mainland Egyptians to settle in the peninsula, mainly to work in tourism, a campaign the Beduin deeply resent.

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Several times in the past few years that tension has yielded terrorism. In 2005 and 2006, a series of al-Qaida-style bombings struck beaches in Sharm e-Sheikh and Dahab, killing around 130 people, including 11 Britons, an Israeli and an American.

In 2009, revelations emerged of a plot by the terrorist wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement against the Sinai tourist sites beloved by Europeans and Israelis, and last summer at least five Katyusha rockets were fired from Sinai toward the Gulf of Aqaba. Three struck in the Eilat area and others in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba, killing a driver outside a luxury hotel.

Monday’s explosion is the third time the gas pipeline has been attacked since Mubarak’s ouster. All of the attacks were assumed to be the handiwork of Islamist groups comprised of, or working in cooperation with, local Beduin.

“Pragmatic Beduin want a new contract with the state, including a degree of local autonomy, access to government and army jobs that have long been denied to them, and an amnesty from the sentences passed on them, often in absentia,” The Economist reported two weeks ago in an article entitled “The Bedouin of Sinai: Free but Dangerous.”

Since February, Beduin smuggling into the Gaza Strip has proceeded almost unimpeded, and kidnapping and violence between rival families become more prevalent.



But while the Beduin are freer of the overweening power of the state, military authorities appear particularly disinclined to bring them within mainstream Egyptian society.

“We’re not in the business of legitimizing smugglers, terrorists, drug barons and outlaws,” an intelligence officer told the magazine.

The Beduin seem unperturbed.

“We don’t care who rules. In all cases, they rule on their own and we rule ourselves. Tribalism is what rules us really,” Ismail Gomaa, from the Remeilat tribe in North Sinai, told Egypt’s Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. “I don’t see a way for the police to come back and operate fully in Sinai.”

Beduin groups tend to couch their operations in Islamist rhetoric, and groups linked to or inspired by al-Qaida have tried with varying degrees of success to set roots in Sinai’s desert. The resurgent Muslim Brotherhood has sought to capitalize on the post- Mubarak power vacuum, hastily constructing an imposing headquarters for its newly legalized political party in Sinai’s largest city El-Arish.

More than jihadi goals, however, the actions of Sinai’s nomads can best be understood in the context of ’urf - the ancient Beduin legal code that operates entirely outside the purview of the state.

Their suspicion of the Beduin aside, some state authorities retain the hope they can win the nomads’ hearts and minds.

“Everyone in the tribes interprets ’urf as they please, which further creates problems and armed conflicts,” Sherif Ismail, the Sinai governor’s security adviser, told Al-Masry al-Youm. “Implementing the rule of law and preserving national security is no longer tied to how we deal with Beduin, but how we work with them and gain their trust.”

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